A very fine piece of polemical social and literary criticism.
I have every sympathy with the main thrust of your
attack which I see as a healthy antidote to that suffocating orthodoxy that the North East has created in lieu of a genuine culture. (John Mapplebeck, Bewick Films).
I found this writing to be an eye-opener when I found it years ago. I knew Pickard and Tony Jackson only as a teenage ruffian, when I flogged knocked-off bound copies of Lord of the Rings to them in Ultima Thule. I enjoyed seeing Ivor Cutler at Morden Tower, but rarely had any other contact with the place. You've done very well to remain faithful to this analysis and I can see much of your motivation comes from it. It should be widely read.
Nod (Alan Clark)
The North East of England, Northumbria, ‘Geordieland’, whatever tag you want to use, is an area not alone in being highly responsive to myth-making and no other cultural scene is more prone to myth-making than the poetry one. Let’s face it, the ‘North East’ itself is but a myth - a jumble of separate localities lazily brought together as a presumed entity. Thank goodness that lumbering quango ‘Culture North East’ has just been scrapped. Having been set up in the ‘Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’ in the supposed regional capital of Newcastle, it was indeed a joke.
Twelve years of New Labour has meant us living under a vast cultural umbrella which, in fact, has stifled real debate and any healthy conflict of ideas and enabled vested interests to consolidate their hegemony with the backing of local authorities and the Arts Council and many other unaccountable quangos in our esteemed region.
For someone like myself, chipping away at the pit-face of bardish endeavour, it has, therefore, been increasingly difficult to challenge the local literary intelligentsia who have been largely carried away by the marketing rhetoric of ‘Passionate places, Passionate people’ and the mythology of ‘a flowering of North East writing’ propounded by many an excitable, and largely middle class, literary entrepreneur.
This hasn’t been helped by Lee Hall’s recent Radio 4 Archive Hour programme (A Strong Song Tows Us - Another History of English Poetry) which simply reinforced the myths without having the intellectual engagement to explore the long heritage of literary grass roots struggle over the last thirty years which has sought to locate poetry in the everyday lives of communities like the East Durham where Hall himself dropped his ‘Billy Elliot’, an ideal New Labour icon if ever there was one!
Hall: ‘I stumbled across a Bloodaxe (Books) tape of Bunting reading a few years back and was absolutely mesmerised. I also knew the work of poets he had influenced such as Barry MacSweeney and Tom Pickard and then got curious to follow the connection.
The connection was very close – famously Tom rekindled Basil’s passion for writing after many years lying dormant and Barry in fact worked in the same office as Basil when he worked on the Chronicle.
Tom and Barry were Billy Elliots of poetry – both were in their mid-teens when they started writing and publishing. Basil was their mentor and through the Morden Tower readings, when everybody who was anybody came through Newcastle, a whole generation of poets were influenced.
The fact that Bunting was writing this in the company of these young people who swarmed to the tower to hear him read is just too extraordinary a thing to let by and so I have made a radio programme where I trace the whole story for people who don’t know about the whole explosion in poetry in the 1960s.
Basil had an extraordinary life and connected Newcastle to the big currents and most important writers of his age. He was friends with Yeats and Ezra Pound, and later the “Beat” poets such as Allen Ginsberg would hang around Newcastle with the Geordies.’ (The Journal Feb 28 2009).
Hall is simplistically out of his depth here. If he had applied himself more meticulously to the task of research, he might have learnt something new. I, for one, could have pointed him to a number of literary activists outside of ‘the myth’ who would have been happy to advise both he and his BBC producer. But then Brother Hall is scarcely a regular in the bars of Easington, spending his leisure time on Broadway donning a tutu with that superb role model for our urban youth, Elton John, who can pen melodies about East Durham and its raw history without ever having been seen there!
So we remain lumbered with the idea of the great Basil Bunting as our supreme regional poetic voice.
Bloodaxe Books, set up by Portchester born Neil Astley, another middle-class and somewhat rootless man who has dropped in on Northumberland to absorb the culture, derives its name from the Viking King in Bunting’s most famous poem ‘Briggflatts’.The name Bloodaxe was suggested by Bunting since Eric Bloodaxe,’King of York/King of Dublin, King of Orkney...’ was the last King of Northumbria, and, on his death, the North was annexed by the English. Astley believes Bloodaxe to be the first patron of poetry on the grounds that he made Egil Skallagrimsson compose his praise-poem during the course of a night, on pain of losing his head.
‘Briggflatts’ is a long poem by Bunting, subtitled 'An Autobiography'.The name 'Briggflatts' comes from a Quaker community near Sedbergh. Bunting visited Briggflatts as a schoolboy: the family of a schoolfriend lived there, and Bunting developed feelings for his friend's sister, Peggy Greenbank. The poem's dedication reads 'For Peggy'.
It was first performed, on December 22 1965, at the Morden Tower in Newcastle, with Bunting acquiring a fake Northumbrian accent for the occasion, allied to a pronounced contempt for ‘the South’. ‘Southrons would maul the music of many lines in Briggflatts’, he claimed, asserting that ‘all the school histories are written by or for southrons’.
Tom Pickard recalls that ‘Bunting considered himself a northern nationalist, and thought in terms of the Northumbrian borders of the Humber and the Firth of Forth. Over a pint, he mused about setting up passport controls in the South. But he was passionately convinced that we have been screwed by southrons for centuries’ (quoted in William Wootten, Basil Bunting, British Modernism and the Time of the Nation, in James McGonigal and Richard Price (eds), The Star You Steer By. Basil Bunting and British Modernism. Studies in Literature 30, Editions Rodopi B.V., Dec 2000).
‘I think there must be some great underlying difference between North & South [...] people with Southern manners are, for me, utterly “impossible” & hateful’,
This ingrained geographical hostility, particularly towards institutions representative of ‘centralised’ and therefore southern rule, was also amplified in each poet’s work due to yet another biographical commonality: their tempestuous professional dealings with the literary establishment and subsequently perceived rejection. Bunting, who was aggrieved both by his initial lack of public recognition and later by what he saw as the refusal of the Arts Council of England to provide for him in old age, remained bitterly hostile towards the English capital and everything it represented, an antipathy which provided him with yet another platform on which to promote the moral as well as the artistic primacy of Northumberland and its culture, stating in a letter to Jonathan Williams: ‘I believe all that underlies the North is horrifying to our C. of E., Southron rulers and their academic sycophants’...
‘Like Auden, whom Sid Chaplin observed had “Obviously little or no feeling for folk–I doubt if he’d ever made friends with a Weardale or Alston Lead Miner”, Bunting preferred to populate his landscape with those consigned to history: with mythical warriors and kings or with symbolic rural characters rather than address its living populace...
In an interview with Peter Bell he termed Geordie ‘a bastard language ... a mixture mainly of South-Northumbrian with the Irish that was brought in by the labourers who came first to dig canals, then to build railways, and finally settle down largely in the coal mines.’ (Rebecca A Smith, Barry MacSweeney and the Bunting Influence, Jacket magazine 2008).
‘Whilst Bunting may have revived memories of Northumbria, the gap between ancient kingdom and modern region remains; and this presents a problem for anyone wishing to endorse Bunting’s nationalism.’ (Wootten).
A whole academic industry has grown from all of this, with a Bunting Archive at the University of Durham and his work actively supported by the English Department there and in Newcastle.
It is not just Bunting whose reputation has been sustained by this but also that of his acolytes Tom and Connie Pickard, who encouraged Bunting and welcomed him to their Morden Tower, and the likes of poet Barry MacSweeney who, in turn, has an Archive established at Newcastle University to promote his work.
All of this actively supported by our friends in the Arts Council who fund Bloodaxe to the hilt and have been known to bail them out of financial ruin.
Andrew Duncan recollects that: ‘When I went to interview Barry MacSweeney in Newcastle, his mother remarked at one point that Pickard had made his whole career out of being a friend of Basil Bunting in the 1960s.’
Ironic that the so highly esteemed Bunting, termed ‘ one of Pound’s most savage disciples’ by W.B.Yeats and by Michael Schmidt as ‘par excellence a self-embattled poet’, is largely unread by most people in the ‘North East’. His work is nowhere near as popular as, say, Robbie Burns who has a genuine feel for the concerns of ordinary people in all their complexity. But try and confront the Bunting industry and you will be largely ignored or, worse, regarded as a leper by the literary aficionados who run the English Schools here. The same sort of thing applies to the Morden Tower and its much trumpeted sixties’ heritage, yet who these days wants to attend esoteric poetry events down a filthy back-lane?
This article is an attempt to take a critical look at these anomalies and to celebrate many of the unsung (and often unfunded) grass roots literary projects which have been active in promoting a lively, and engaged, writing in the region, past and present.
For a healthy debating point, I will take the following extracts from W.E. (Bill) Parkinson’s ‘Poetry in the North East’ (British Poetry Since 1960, A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt & Grevel Lindop, Carcanet Press, 1972). This is what Parkinson has to say (though his dissent has been covered up over the years by the intelligentsia):
'Bunting's work must be mentioned because of its harmful influence on the work of the younger poets. His work and theirs reveals a lack of modern sensibility. 'Loquitur', a collection of poems written between 1924-35, and 'Briggflatts', a clumsy poem in the heroic mood, contain a hodge-podge of poetic styles (generally more effectively used by their originators), overworked and over-conscious literary effects, collages of literary illusions reminiscent of Pound, and a meretricious display of erudition. Present also are the clues that point to an elitist view of life and art; the Art for Art's sake doctrine, 'Poetry is seeking to make not meaning but music' (a curiously anachronistic view of language); the facile rejection of modern society; contempt for modern man, present in 'Briggflatts'; over-weening pessimism, proud cynicism and the dishonest use of history conjuring up a former Northumbrian Golden Age that cannot be recovered....
Tom Pickard's and Barry MacSweeney's collections make monotonous reading. The reader endures page after page of unrelieved tedium, sluggish and slovenly language, peacock displays of egocentricity poorly disguising a lack of self-criticism. Their work is virtually inaccessible to those unable to share the crude and simplistic emotions or tolerate the inarticulateness of the language which goes as near to using words without meaning as one can. Their claims to spontaneity and originality are also suspect; the influence of Bunting, Olson and the Black Mountaineers is evident. Like Bunting they are caught up in their own myth. They form with Bunting a small clique of self-regarding poets in an attitude of mutual poetic back-scratching.'
Recently, I sent this extract to a number of contemporary poets and activists (of one hue or another) in the North East for their comments and this was what some of them had to say (several, of course, with vested interests in the Bunting Industry, did not reply)
From Lee Hall (who put together the Radio 4 programme mentioned above):
‘The factionalism and backbiting in the poetry world seems bizarre to me. I am constantly bemused by the infighting. I am a very catholic reader and find at least some value in almost all writing. I guess coming from theatre and film which is a collegiate enterprise and a very broad church - the very basis of many of the political and aesthetic assessments which split the poetry world apart seem wrongheaded. Take it as read I disagree with the assessment above. But it is not my wish to enter into any debate about this. My role is as an enthusiast.’
Other views on the Parkinson piece:
From filmmaker John Mapplebeck:
‘My position on Bunting and his followers is not dissimilar to the position set out by Parkinson. It’s significant that what drew Tom Pickard to Bunting in the first place was the imprimatur of Pound who somewhere describes Bunting as the world’s greatest poet. It’s not clear how sane Pound was at this, or any other point in his life. But that’s the problem. I find Pound, like Bunting virtually unreadable, but there are people whose judgements, in other respects I value, who see him as an important twentieth century voice.
In my old age, no matter how intolerant I was when I was younger, I no longer have some sort of Leavisite canon and merely feel that “there’s no accounting for taste.”
But that senile tolerance doesn’t stop me taking umbrage at “not meaning but music”. Bunting, when he tried to express the “music” of his work was quite dreadful. Who can forget the rapt awe of his disciples at the promise that “Basil is going to read” and then the reality of that quavering falsetto voice making the impenetrable even further impenetrable.’
From poet Katrina Porteous:
‘Bunting’s admonition that ‘a Northumbrian poet belongs in Northumberland’ helped strengthen my resolve to return to the North East. Other than that, I cannot say that Bunting’s work has had a direct influence on my own. There are aspects of his poetry which I appreciate: his juxtaposition of voices and, above all, his word-music. But I did not study English Literature for my degree, and I find his language at times clotted and mannered, and his scholarly allusions deliberately obscure.
The attention which is given to his work in North East literary circles may be dangerous if it closes down debate and deflects attention away from alternative, authentically local traditions of ballad and song. More generally, the Modernist rejection of ‘meaning’ can be a deeply destructive influence. Of course poetry is about music; but it must also be about meaning, and about the tension and sparkle between the two.
As a non-Northumbrian myself, and one who, writing in dialect, is subject to the same criticisms, I think that Bunting’s relation to Northumbrian culture was deeply problematic: although born into it, he was also an outsider. To me, Briggflatts explores the love and betrayal of a place and culture just as much as of any person, and the disquiet which the poem arouses in me springs from this. On the one hand it purports to celebrate a landscape, history and culture, but on the other it seems self-consciously to alienate itself from these things. The relation between the two positions – native and exile, regional and international – does not seem to me an honest one. This problem is summed up for me in Bunting’s manufactured Northumbrian accent, which sounds nothing like any Northumbrian I ever heard.’
Poet Paul Summers:
‘My issue with Bunting is less about his poetry, I like elements of his lyricism and musicality, although that contrived performance voice of his leaves me a bit cold - my problem lies more in the northern intelligentsia’s lazy adoption of him as the singular 'Poet of the North' - when outside of Briggflatts there's much more of Persia and the classics than of Northumbria - he's undoubtedly an important modernist but he's actually less significant as a poet of place. He is not, to the 'north', what Maccaig was to the highlands and Edinburgh. I understand the need for this intelligentsia to simplify a lineage of perceived cultural significance but I wish they'd clarify their criteria. Is it Bunting's northernness that is important or his importance to the North?
Poet Andy Croft:
‘Bunting has never been a particularly important figure for me, but he was clearly very important to people like Barry MacSweeney and Tom Pickard, for whom he offered the region a culturally authoritative back-story. But the key connection seems to me to be with Neil Astley. One of Neil’s first publishing projects (the name of which is of course a nod to Bunting) was an LP record of Bunting reading Brigflatts to the accompaniment of Scarlatti sonatas. Bunting gave the region's poetry scene a direct link to European and US Modernism without having to go via London. Which is what Bloodaxe has been doing ever since.’
Poet Alan C.Brown:
I agree with the article about Basil Bunting, what would you like me to add to it?
Connie Pickard and her friends have an idolatrous admiration for him and believe all the myths he told himself when alive although they are absurd for one thing he used to claim he was a high ranking RAF officer in the last war also that there were only six good modern poets, himself included. I forget the names of the others but think such names as Pound and the like.
His treatment of sex in Briggflatts is sexist and ugly - you may remember the passage on the young girl that he seduced in a cold bare fashion, look it up.
It has been claimed by writers after he died that he was a better poet than his hero Ezra Pound for the most ridiculous reasons.
He resembled Pound by being a Fascist and very anti-Socialist with very right wing opinions that he often told me. His claim to be still a Quaker which he has been praised for certainly was true in fact but he had bypassed their religion and their attitude to peace that I remember strongly.
He was also humourless when asked to comment on anything when I met him by chance on the street. I had many conversations with him and attended his last reading in Newcastle when he had a young teenager sitting at his feet and refilling his glass of red wine as if she was a slave girl to him and he was a Persian nobleman.’
Poet William Martin:
‘Early on in my writing, I heard Basil Bunting reading Briggflatts at the Morden Tower. He read in a guttural Northern accent, which, I later discovered, was not his natural voice. Despite this, I always enjoyed him reading the poem at other venues and on the radio. He had been encouraged to write again by Tom and Connie Pickard and supported by the young writers of Newcastle. For them, we should be grateful. Sadly, however, others, but Tom Pickard in particular, failed to blossom after Bunting.’
Finally from our man at Arts Council North East, Executive Director Mark Robinson:
‘I don’t think I really have anything to say on Bunting et al, and certainly not sparked by that extract. Morden Tower's role in the literary life of the city stands for itself. Not sure who W.E. Parkinson is/was but he or she has an odd turn of phrase and an odd point of view.’
It is interesting, by the way, that despite an intense dislike of institutions, Bunting was appointed Northern Arts Literary Fellow at Newcastle and Durham Universities in 1968 (whose honorary degree for him he thought ‘inedible’), in 1972 became President of the Poetry Society, and in 1974 was annointed President of Northern Arts (of which he proclaimed rather snobbily: ‘I don’t like the receptionist’s manners’).
Obviously, I do not share any great passion for Basil Bunting. I consider him highly overrated - but that’s a subjective view, of course. Aside from Briggflatts, what has been his contribution to our regional culture, actually? I am aware of his being inspired by the Northumbrian poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne and those of the pitman poet Joseph Skipsey, by the way.
For poet, publisher and critic Michael Schmidt in his ‘Lives of the Poets’ (Weidenfeld & Nicholson,1997) Bunting, on his return to Northumberland, when he began to write again after being expelled from Persia, produced his best work and emerged into a kind of celebrity, in demand on the international reading circuit and honoured as the last Modernist survivor, the one few had heard of before, a largely benign, occasionally curmudgeonly, dinosaur’.
Denis Goacher (Talks about Basil Bunting, Sharp Study and Long Toil, the special Bunting issue of Durham University Journal 1995) confirms that ‘[The] Northumbrian accent was a manufactured one. He had, in fact, a very refined voice but had two things in mind when reading his poetry aloud. He was very careful to keep the flat A's and a bit likely to roll his R's, but he certainly did not, in normal speech, roll his R's to the prodigious extent that he did when reading his poems. I never heard any sort of Northumbrian sound like that! There was also a slight over-emphasis on wanting to bring back the valuable consonants and, in particular, to make up for the elision of the R in English Southern speech. I thought he had a point there—that we have lost something, as indeed modern French has done. But the self-conscious rolling of his R's, I thought, slowed up the actual course of the line ... He is really tracing back his past, recovering the accent he was born with, with a layer of nostalgia. But, I repeat, there is an over-emphasis on regionality, because he wished to make a point against Southern speech.’
The rapacious North East myth-making, which Lee Hall has rather gullibly endorsed, is strongly refuted by the poet Peter Riley. Because of Riley’s passion and eloquence, I quote him at length:
‘Tall Tales of the Newcastle Poetry Revolution’.
Concerning a broadcast by Lee Hall.
Abbreviated and expanded from a letter to the British-Poets e-mail list.
‘I’m all in favour of linking that modernist development in English poetry in the 1960s to working-class history. As a result of the 1944 Education Act and post-war socialistic policies there was a release of working-class young people into higher education and thus more easily into poetry, which I think was responsible for a lot of the radicalism which developed then (and some of the conservatism). A surprising number of the “Cambridge” group for instance and other innovating poets of the late 1960s were working-class in origin, although by then the process was mature and must also include people like Ted Hughes and Roy Fisher. Such involvement has now become rare.
This broadcast exploited a history which attempted to appropriate this creative movement to a "northern" putsch which was actually no more than contributory and to do this it distorted the whole thing. It wasn’t that cosy regional version, and all sorts of fabrication and omission went on in order to make it seem like a Northumbrian revolution. It was in many ways collaborative, and the main player, MacSweeney, was well involved in what was going on further south before any of the events narrated took place. But every southern connection was methodically omitted, not to mention the appropriation of Wales, Ireland, Wordsworth and Whitman to the north-eastern enclave, all “northern”, all struggling for independence from southern oppressors. The meaning of “northern” in fact vacillated throughout between Northumbria and anything north or west of Birmingham.
For example there was a lot about Basil Bunting as the great original of this upsurgence, with his modernist lineage as part of the Pound and Yeats retinues, his contempt for “southrons” and the renascence of what he thought was Northumbrian tongue in Briggflatts, and his modernism was passed on to Pickard and MacSweeney and so into the future of British poetry. Then up pops Neil Astley and Yes, he says, I named Bloodaxe Books from Briggflatts, as if he were the publishing arm of the great northern vowel retention. Astley did not, in fact, publish Bunting and MacSweeney until they had become safe commercial propositions many years later (the latter in 1997). Meanwhile Stuart Montgomery’s Fulcrum Press of London England published the first edition of Briggflatts (1966), Bunting’s Collected Poems (1968), Pickard’s first book (1966) and MacSweeney’s second after the Hutchinson debacle (1971). Montgomery was a heroic publisher, but he wasn’t northern so he was wiped from the history.
I could list about 20 points like this. The greatest source of falsehoods was MacSweeney himself. His 1973 interview with Eric Mottram is already notorious for its mendacity, but two of the worst sections of it were broadcast without any corrective comment. He completely falsified not only the nature of the gathering of poets that took place at Sparty Lea in 1967, but also his own biography.
The account given was that the budding poet left school and became a journalist, and miracolo! found himself in the same office as Basil Bunting, whose poetical wing he was taken under and thus was formed a major arc of the great north-eastern modernist poetry event, conceived mainly as a rebellion against southern English and middle-class poetry, culture and persons.
My version is that MacSweeney left school and went into training as a journalist, as the programme said, but this wasn’t in Newcastle, it was in Harlow Essex, and it was while he was there that he got to know Jeremy Prynne, Andrew Cozier and the Cambridge lot. So he knew and was influenced by Prynne et al. before he ever met Bunting, and this was what turned him from a pop poet into a modernist. A fascicle of his first book The Boy from the Green Cabaret, 1968, appeared in the run of The English Intelligencer, the privately circulated worksheet of the “Cambridge” group, a year or two before Hutchinson published it. Furthermore the Oxford Professorship farce took place at this time and so the claims about being an innocent working-class kid from a back-to-back estate where culture was a foreign language seduced by a wicked London publisher into a disastrous publicity stunt is nonsense. He went into that with his eyes wide open having been advised against it (and against Hutchinson) by the “effete shits” (as he put it) of Cambridge. [Haven’t been able to check every detail of the above paragraph but I feel quite confident about it].
In March 1967 Prynne and MacSweeney between them arranged for a meeting of poets in a couple of cottages owned by MacSweeney’s mother at Sparty Lea, high up Allendale. About 10 of us made our way there, hung around the area for a week or so, read poems to each other in the evenings, talked somewhat, and spent a fair amount of time in the pub at Allenheads. This has repeatedly been represented by MacSweeney and others as a violent occasion, in which several physical fights took place representing conflict between working-class and middle-class poets. He spoke of people attacking each other with chairs and bottles, it was “real fucking chaos”, he said, and all this was quoted in full in the programme. It was nothing of the sort. There was only one act of physical violence during the week at Sparty Lea, when Pickard deliberately drove his Landrover into the back of Prynne’s car, and that was for personal rather than ideological reasons. I’ve checked more than once with others who were there and none of the fights that MacSweeney spoke of took place.
His claim that John James and other “real working class kids” present at the Sparty Lea event were inimical to Jeremy Prynne is untrue. Neither is there any truth in the statement that all these poets were under “direct tuition” from Prynne (any more than he was). There was a close association at the time which included Barry, but it wasn’t a classroom.
And both I and John Temple would like to know why we had to be stripped of our working-class / northern origins and education in order to figure as enemies in this fantasy of class warfare (John actually comes from Co. Durham).
This is the third time that I’ve tried to correct this version of Sparty Lea. The first was in the letter page of The Guardian following a sensationalist account by Gordon Burn. It begins to feel as if whatever anyone says the world, or the media version of it, is determined to believe it was one great punch-up between the northern workers with their wonderful open vowels and the tight-lipped snobs from Cambridge, like an episode from Billy Bunter. The event was also represented as a conflict between local, north-eastern, poets, and intervening southerners. There were actually no local poets at Sparty Lea except Barry himself and some one-day visitors including Pickard. It was organised as a get-together for the Cambridge lot, including Barry, who mostly knew each other only by post at the time.’
Peter Riley (April Eye website).
The Newcastle poet George Charlton has written (Northern Review, Vol.1, 1995) that the North East has no poetic tradition. How far is this true? it seems to me that he is taking too narrow a view of what we call ‘culture’. He is locked into the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ school of literature where we are to be judged alongside the Wordsworths, the T.S.Eliots and, with the North East in mind again, the Basil Buntings. What of a culture which takes in not only poetry but folk song, music hall, political broadsides, football chants, dialect, pop music? Is there not, for example, poetry in local songs such as ‘Keep Your Feet Still, Geordie Hinny’ or Cushy Butterfield’, even the ‘Blaydon Races’? Such a broad view of culture would question the standards of ‘the literati, even their definition of ‘poetry’. Is there not also ‘poetry’ in everyday patter, in pub conversations, at least occasionally?
‘Today it is vitally important for writers, folk singers, critics and researchers to sustain and energise our distinctive and differing regional cultures, both written and oral.’ (Parkinson).
Joseph Skipsey, the pitman poet form Percy Main, is in the same tradition as Tommy Armstrong, the Tanfield bard, and song writers such as Joe Wilson and Geordie Ridley from the Tyneside music hall era. Their literary style may be crude and unsophisticated but they speak from experience and communicate spiritedly to their own class. They, in the manner of a minor Robbie Burns, remain a strong influence in my own work and an inspiration behind the publication of poems by the Tyneside shipyard worker Jack Davitt, alias ‘Ripyard Cuddling’, for example. In my introduction to his ‘Shipyard Muddling’ (Strong Words, 1977), I wrote: ‘Many poets have not written with an understanding of the real issues which confront the majority of ‘ordinary’ people. This has, in my view, prevented much of English poetry from communicating to any group of people other than a narrow academic elite...This collection proves too that poetry is a tool for us all - something that is wielded not only by a narrow, chosen few but is available to everyone. What these poems lack in literary technique, they more than make up for in their refreshing openness and accessibility.’
For Parkinson, ‘modern poets in the North East, standing apart from their communities have lost this creative relationship and are prone to the self-regarding excesses of an illusory individualism’. Bearing this in mind, I can well remember Tom Pickard telling me ‘that he had no political axe to grind’ and declaring boldly that the working class ‘did not want poetry’.
For myself, In my poem ‘Swan Hunter Viking’ , reproduced below, I am searching for a Geordie place in Europe, culturally and politically. This is the direction in which I’m drawn - and away from a sometimes oppressive American domination which I don’t think is sufficiently thought out by my fellow Geordie poets. I am as much inspired by Brecht or Baudelaire as I am by Blake or Swinburne but not much by American poets, apart from, say, Dylan or Whitman.
SWAN HUNTER VIKING
I am more inclined
to prowl the Jules Verne lanes of Amiens
or the backstreets of a Brecht Berlin
than shank the Black Mountains
of the massive States.
My nose points dripping cold
from Shields to Scandinavia;
my battered cheeks reek of North Sea cod.
Instincts lead me to Munch and to Courbet,
to Hasek and De Nerval.
This Geordie’s inspiration comes alive
in translations of teeming Oslo streets
or dark Prenzlauer Berg cobbles
not from the vomit of the sprawling Bowery.
Baltic folk tunes still whistle in my ears.
I get the ghettoblaster belt of Smetena
clearer than the wail of Dylan.
The sexy accordions of Montmartre are in my blood.
I face this way:
my poetry sings with euro-balladry;
my feet itch with traditional rhymes:
border ballads in The Blink Bonny,
fiddles leaping in Sandy Bell’s.
I am no modernist.
I see my footprints in the snowy past
on the Old Tyne Bridge,
or outside a bar in Reykjavik
or on an icy lake of vodka.
Pushkin floats in my dreams,
Verlaine is on my lips,
and Rimbaud hammers knives inside my brain.
I cannot swim in Atlantic water,
only the German Sea will do.
I think my father built me Northern ships,
a Swan Hunter Viking
raiding the flooded dictionary of my soul.
I happily drift across the square in wintry Groningen,
smoke myself silly on Prinsengracht
and leap with light at Oeteldonk.
I once skipped school with boys in Heaton
and licked the breasts of a lass on Buckhurst Hill.
At home I am always
dabbling my naked feet in lovely sand,
my fingers wet with new poems.
Think on Northumbrian bards,
my fellow country gents,
I tell you now
that I would rather die dead drunk
in a pool of Swinburne’s wine
than in a frozen field
Paul Kingsnorth in his recent book ‘Real England - The Battle Against The Bland’ (Portobello Books, 2008) asserts that ‘The English, perhaps uniquely among European nations, are becoming almost a de-cultured people. From the shops on our high streets to the vocabulary we use, we are becoming a cheap and nasty imitation of the worst of consumer America. We can’t sing our own folk songs...The English - or the English intellectual classes, at any rate - have long been renowned for this kind of rootless shoulder shrugging...Mention English to an English intellectual today and you can still count the seconds before they start mentioning the horrors of Britain’s imperial past...They are usually much happier hymning the virtues of England’s ethnic minorities - communities which, ironically, draw much of their strength from their strong sense of cultural identity - than discussing English culture as a whole. Often they will go on to deny that ‘English culture’ even exists...we’re all ‘multicultural now, so talking about it will probably offend somebody. Discussions - let alone, God forbid, celebrations - of English identity are to be regarded with immediate suspicion, whereas those of virtually any other community on Earth...are to be welcomed as positive displays of ethnic diversity. Even the tarnished ideal of ‘multiculturalism’ often seems to involve the positive celebration of every culture in Britain except the largest one- English culture...Landscape and belonging are tied inextricably together. Englishness as an identity comes not from institutions or vague ideas about ‘values’ but from place.’
For my own part, I am glad to be from an English ranting tradition, inspired by ballad , folk and pop songs - and especially that great Tyneside radical Thomas Spence, a poet and activist if ever there was one. My culture is developed from my working class background and from a profound sense of historical development, a feel for the historic streets and alleyways of my home city of Newcastle, a grasp of the Northumbrian landscape, its border history, the shape of the Tyne and the coastal landscape. There is a real pride here but, if you are not careful, an insularity and a narrow tribalism. I have tried to resist this, to delve into my region’s history with open eyes, to learn from the past but to progress, to live in the Global Village - and certainly without any anti-southern bias! I am sceptical of claims for an independent Northumbria, I am a regionalist but want to be part of a new progressive England.
It all depends on how wide an audience you are searching for - and I’m looking for a wide one, not to be found in gloomy towers down dingy lanes. So accessibility and understanding is important to me - and I mean this without dumbing down. Striving for simplicity is actually hard work and complex.
‘And I always thought; the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.’
KEITH ARMSTRONG was born in Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne, and has worked as a community development worker, poet, librarian and publisher. He is coordinator of
the Northern Voices creative writing and community publishing project which specialises in recording the experiences of people in the North East of England. He has organised several community arts festivals in the region and many literary events and many literary events featuring the likes of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Douglas Dunn, Barry Hines, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Katrina Porteous, Ian McMillan, Peter Mortimer, Sean O'Brien, Edward Bond, Edwin Morgan, Uwe Kolbe, Attila the Stockbroker, Jon Silkin, Brendan Cleary, Paul Summers, Ivor Cutler, Adrian Mitchell, Julia Darling, Jackie Kay, Linda France, Benjamin Zephaniah and Liz Lochhead. He was founder of Ostrich poetry magazine, Poetry North East, Tyneside Writers' Workshop, Tyneside Poets, East Durham Writers' Workshop, Tyneside Trade Unionists for Socialist Arts, Tyneside Street Press and the Strong Words and Durham Voices community publishing series.
He has recently compiled and edited books on the Durham Miners’ Gala and on the former mining communities of County Durham and the market town of Hexham.
He was a community worker with Newcastle Neighbourhood Projects (part of Community Projects Foundation), research worker with Tyneside Housing Aid Centre, and then Community Arts Development Worker (1980-6) with Peterlee Community Arts (later East Durham Community Arts)
He was Year of the Artist 2000 poet-in-residence at Hexham Races and is currently poet-in-residence with the Newcastle United fanzine ‘True Faith.
In his youth, he travelled to Paris to seek out the grave of poet Charles Baudelaire and he has been making cultural pilgrimages abroad ever since. He has toured to Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Poland, Iceland (including readings with Peter Mortimer during the Cod War), Denmark, France, Germany (including readings at the Universities of Hamburg, Kiel, Oldenburg, Trier and Tuebingen), Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, the United States, Cuba, Jamaica and Kenya.
His poetry has been translated into Dutch, German, Russian, Italian, Icelandic and Czech.
He has long pioneered cultural exchanges with Durham’s twinning partners, particularly Tuebingen and Nordenham in Germany and Ivry-sur-Seine and Amiens in France, as well as with Newcastle’s Dutch twin-city of Groningen. In fact, he has visited Tuebingen some 30 times since he first spent a month there in November 1987 as poet-in-residence supported by Durham County Council and the Kulturamt, and he has performed his poetry in the city’s Hoelderlin Tower and, on three occasions, as part of the annual Book Festival.
He has been a self-employed writer since 1986 and he has just been awarded a doctorate at the University of Durham for his work on writer Jack Common, having received a BA Honours Degree in Sociology in 1995 and Masters Degree in 1998 for his studies on regional culture in the North East of England.
His biography of Jack Common, ‘Common Words and the Wandering Star’, was published by the University of Sunderland Press in 2009.
For further material consult the Doctor Keith Armstrong Archive at the University of Durham’s Palace Green Library: http://www.dur.ac.uk/library/asc/collection_information/cldload/?collno=565